BROOKLINE, N.H. — The traffic accident was bad.
Police and ambulance and fire units were responding from all over on Tuesday morning.
Steve Whitcomb, a veteran Brookline firefighter, was among them.
Tasks lay ahead: A vehicle needed jacking. A male victim was pinned beneath it. Hoses were unfurled in case flames burst. Up the vehicle went. Hands reached beneath and pulled the victim out.
The victim was not male. The victim was a woman. No one needed telling who she was.
Her name was Katie Hamilton. She had lived in Brookline all her life. She had a husband and three young daughters. She was a Zumba instructor and a plumber who had worked with her dad since she was a teenager.
She was nonresponsive.
It fell to the chief to break the news to Steve Whitcomb. There would be no rescue for one of their own, Steve’s daughter, Katie.
“This was our worst fear come true when you come upon an accident,” Brookline Chief Charlie Corey said.
Less than 24 hours later, Christmas Day dawned.
For many in this small town on the border of Massachusetts, the lights and tinsel and warmth of the day felt incongruous, like merry relics of years past. The year has been a brutal one for the town’s Fire Department. The assistant chief, Curt Jensen, died suddenly shortly before Thanksgiving from cardiac arrest. He was 51. Months before, the fire chief’s father passed away. Now, Katie.
Katie’s husband, Liam Hamilton, woke their girls early Christmas morning. Christmas still had to be Christmas.
“I tried to make it normal,” he said.
But the littlest, just 2 years old, was confused. Where is Mommy? she asked. The 4-year-old answered before he could. “Mommy died,” the older girl said. Again, the toddler baby asked for her mommy. The 9-year-old wept.
Hamilton whisked the girls to the home of grandparents, Nana and Papa, the Whitcombs, who live less than a mile away. Friends and family were gathered, as they had the day before. They consoled one another and pondered the unthinkable.
What they knew was this: Katie had dropped the girls at her mom’s house Tuesday morning while she headed to a job for the plumbing company where she worked with her father, Whitcomb Plumbing & Heating. She had planned to get her girls afterward so they could come with her to run errands in nearby Milford but her mom persuaded her to leave the girls with her. She could get more done without them, and would be back in time for the Whitcomb family Christmas party later in the day.
At five minutes after 9 a.m., Katie Hamilton was moments from her parents’ home. She was headed southbound on two-lane Route 13, where the speed limit is 50 miles per hour. She was preparing to turn left onto Route 130.
As she waited for northbound traffic to clear, a Toyota Tundra pickup rear-ended her, police said. The crash propelled her Ford Explorer into incoming traffic in the northbound lane, where a Ford F250 pickup broadsided her SUV, police said.
Neither the driver of the Toyota Tundra, Greg Cullen, a 31-year-old from Milford, N.H., nor the driver of the Ford F250, James Ciprotti, a 37-year-old from Weare, N.H., was harmed, police said.
Police are investigating the cause of the crash.
Neither Cullen nor Ciprotti could be reached.
Liam Hamilton’s body shook Wednesday morning as he stepped outside his in-laws’ home to recall his wife. They met in plumbing classes in 2005. He was older. She made the first move.
“She called me up a few days before Christmas wanting to go line-dancing,” he said.
He went. “It was well worth it,” he said.
They were married in 2008.
She came from a family of three kids. “She and her dad were always really tight,” Hamilton said. Katie trailed after Steve Whitcomb, watching him work as a plumber and at the fire station in the town center, where he has served as a volunteer for 22 years.
“She grew up with the Fire Department,” said Corey, the chief whose daughter went to school with Hamilton.
She was a frequent organizer of fund-raisers for the department, including the fall duck race and the summer barbecue. When fires or traffic accidents claimed lives, she was among the first to rally support for grieving families, Corey said.
“She was always there to help,” he said.
A few weeks ago, after Jodi Jensen lost her husband, the assistant fire chief, Katie and Liam Hamilton bought her a Christmas tree.
“It was her last gift to me,” Jensen said.
Donations for the Hamilton family can be made to The Hamilton Fund c/o TD Bank, 104 Route 13, Gazebo Square, Brookline, N.H. 03033.